Poson Poya in Sri Lanka is the celebration of the arrival of Arahant Mahinda and the introduction of  Buddhist Teachings. The event was the outcome of the dissemination programme of the Buddhist Doctrine of the Indian Emperor Asoka. According to a resolution adopted at the Third Buddhist Council or the DharmaSangayanaya convened by the Emperor [...]


Emperor Asoka’s role in making Buddhism a world religion


Thuparama Sthupa in Anuradhapura

Poson Poya in Sri Lanka is the celebration of the arrival of Arahant Mahinda and the introduction of  Buddhist Teachings. The event was the outcome of the dissemination programme of the Buddhist Doctrine of the Indian Emperor Asoka. According to a resolution adopted at the Third Buddhist Council or the DharmaSangayanaya convened by the Emperor with Moggalliputtatissa Maha Thera presiding, it was decided to send out nine missions to spread the word of the Buddha to the frontiers and beyond the Asokan empire. Arahant Mahinda’s mission to Sri Lanka was one of them which was the last to leave Jambudvipa, nine years after the rest.

The Buddhist Doctrine thus brought in 246 BCE, remained a vibrant force for over 2600 years, drastically transforming the religious, cultural, political and social landscape of the island. And it reached a milestone last month when the UN Day of Vesak was observed in Sri Lanka.

The despatch of Buddhist missionaries, which was one of the greatest feats of  Emperor Asoka, signalled the initiation of his foreign relations with the neighbouring countries through the propagation of Buddhism. And the Buddhist Teachings thus, which confined to the Asokan Empire and which may have disappeared with time as it did happen later in India, were taken away from India and sent out through missionaries which eventually made it a world religion.

Records reveal some of the names of these pioneering missionaries who could be termed as India’s first set of  diplomats who took the Buddha’s Message to the                                                                                                   outside world. Majjhantika Thera was sent to Kashmir and Gandhara, Mahadhammarakkita Thera to Maharatta, Mahadeva Thera to Mahisamadala,  Rakkita Thera to Vanavasa, Dhammarakkita the Yona Thera to Aparantaka, Mahadhammarakkita Thera to Maharatta, Maharakkita Thera to the country of Yona, Majjhima Thera to Himalaya country, Sona and Uttara Theras to Suvannabhumi (Myanmar) and Mahinda Thera to Sri Lanka.

According to Dipavamsa, nine Buddhist missions were thus sent to a distance of 600 “yojanas” while Pali texts corroborate that the Doctrine reached frontiers and neighbouring territories. However, Professor Merlin Peris, former Professor of Classics, University of  Peradeniya says that Asoka’s relations with the Syrian king and the king of Egypt had been cordial. Syria had been under Antiochus 11 and Egypt had been ruled by Ptolemy 11 Phialdphos.  He had sent delegations also to neighbouring Macedonia and Epirus as well as to Cyrene which was ruled by Megasthene, as claimed by Asoka in his Rock Edict X111.

The language spoken in all these countries in the West was Greek.  Missionaries had to communicate in the language the people in the respective country spoke.  Arahant  Mahinda learnt the Sinhala language before arriving in Sri Lanka and delivered his first discourse in the Sinhala language. Missionaries sent to the West were those who could speak the Greek language and Asoka had the advantage of having Greek monks as well as Greek-speaking Indian monks to undertake the mission.

Who were these Indian bhikkhus who spoke Greek? At the time of Emperor Asoka’s reign, there were large numbers of Greeks living in India. They  had arrived with Alexander in 334 BCE as invaders to India. But following his death, many of them instead of returning to Greece, had settled down in the North West of India extending as far as the Indus. And these Greeks had been assimilated into the Indian populace.

Some, fascinated by the noble Teachings of the Buddha and the gentle austere life it propagated, had even joined the Bhikkhu Order. The Greek language therefore, may have been a common language spoken even by the Prakrit- speaking people at the time and Greek was perhaps the first foreign language used by missionaries to propagate the Dhamma. Therefore, Professor Peris says that Greeks were among the earliest people other than the Indians, to convert to Buddhism, even before Sri Lankans. Yona monks (Greeks were known as Yona) had headed missions and Greek was used for the spread of the Dhamma in the West and India’s neighbouring regions in the west.

It is surmised that these missionaries may have travelled along trade routes that spanned from the Far East to the West. There had been brisk trade taking place between India, China and the Roman Empire which had led to the formation of mercantile guilds in ancient India. In fact it had been during a stop-over of Asoka in the house of Sethi, the Chief of a Mercantile Guild at Vedisa- Nagara that he had met Vedisa Devi – the daughter of the chief of the guild whom he married and had 2 children – Mahinda and Sanghamitta. Buddhism had been promoted by the trading and urban people and it is reported that Vedisa Devi, the daughter of a rich trader, had been a Buddhist devotee who may also have influenced Asoka to take to Buddhism.

Asoka sent  missionaries to Suvannabhumi or Myanmar which may have included Siam and beyond.  However, these missions sent to the East, although they do not figure prominently in edicts or texts, seemed to have made a  bigger impact than the missionaries sent to the West as the Doctrine lasts in many of these countries to date.

Missionaries to the East had gone overland and later had travelled further East riding in traders’ caravans along the silk route spreading the Teachings in countries in and beyond Myanmar. And Buddhism did take firmly root in countries such as present Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam as well as Mongolia, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan. It had even spread further afield as the massive Vihara complex of  Borobudur in Indonesia gives evidence.  It was the Mahayana Buddhism that spread to some of these countries but at a certain point of time in history, Buddhism had been the only principal faith followed by almost all these Asian countries in the East.

Emperor Asoka, who was the force behind spreading Buddhism outside India, is considered as having made the greatest contribution to the spread of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He sent his only son to Sri Lanka to impart the noble Teachings of the Buddha. A few months later, he sent his only daughter Sanghamitta Theri with the southern branch of the Sacred Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment.

Emperor Asoka’s magnanimity to Sri Lanka also included the gift of some of Buddha’s body relics and Begging Bowl. According to historical records, these were enshrined in Thuparama Sthupa in Anuradhapura which commenced the worship of Sthupa in Sri Lanka. Craftsmen of 18 crafts sent along with Sangamitta Theri, contributed to the evolution of  Buddhist architecture and the construction of Buddhist monuments with Buddha’s relics enshrined in them which has contributed to the continuity of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.




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